The Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat is celebrated on the 15th day of the Hebrew month, Shevat. It is a time of festive celebration and demonstration of appreciation for the land of Israel, the environment and the Creation of G-d.
It is also known as the “New Year for Trees,” because it was the day set by the Rabbinical authorities by which to record and estimate tithing of crops and fruit. Those who live in Israel plant trees to commemorate their observance of this holiday. This year Tu B’Shevat falls on a Shabbat, the 22nd of January 2000, so tree planting will be scheduled for the Friday before or the next day, Sunday. Some of my fondest memories are of my young children coming home from kindergarten with sapling trees or bushes and excitedly rushing out to the park to root their own contribution to the reblossoming of our Land.
The Promise of Life
In addition to being a teaching tool for our children regarding love and involvement with the Land, this holiday is a wonderful way to recognize our dependence on G-d for physical provision in the coming spring harvest. Although not Biblically ordained, historical records indicate that Jews, even during Temple times, acknowledged this day as a time to re–connect with the natural cycle of the year and consider how their own lives related to, and were affected by, the agricultural calendar. As the beginning of the agricultural calendar, this time of planting and rejoicing in the seed–birth of harvest foods draws our attention to G-d’s eternal creative acts on the earth, especially those acts that are not readily seen, but are in seed form. It is interesting to note that the Torah itself is referred to as “the Tree of Life for those who hold fast to it” (Proverbs 3:18).
As we bend our knee to the Creator of the world, and place a fragile sapling in the ground for nourishment, we become aware of the importance of our being planted and firmly rooted in G-d’s Torah. Just as Tu B’Shevat is also a protest against the destruction of G-d’s beauty, our hearts are reminded to cry out before the Living G-d against the destruction and degradation of His Word and its effectiveness in the lives of His children today. In a way, Tu B’Shevat can also be considered to be a time of Teshuvah or Returning to G-d. The very act of planting a tree in the soil of Israel, with all its promise of life, is a reminder for those who have strayed away of the need to return to Him, physically and spiritually. For those who are “near” it is an encouragement to remember all the infinite possibilities there are when one is rooted in Torah and living in Him.
The Tu B’Shevat Seder
Rabbis living in the Galilee region during the 16th century began the tradition of the Tu B’Shevat Seder meal. The seder is marked, in a similar way to the Passover Seder, with the drinking of four cups of wine. Also included in its menu is the sampling of fruits, seeds and nuts that were harvested in the previous year in Israel, and with G-d’s blessing will be harvested once again in the coming year. In addition, the Tu B’Shevat Seder affords time for us to meditate on the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120–134) which the Levites recited as they ascended the fifteen steps to the Temple. These Psalms remind us of G-d’s majesty and His love that is bestowed upon man through creation.
“We wept when we remembered Zion.”
My inability to be in Israel this year is teaching me a great deal as I experience the grief of being “uprooted” from my Land and my People. Without this special day to practice, in a “hands on” way, my gratitude to the Lord for bringing me out of the land of my (physical) fathers into the land of my (spiritual) fathers, my soul feels an emptiness that I have not experienced for over five years. Life in the Land of Israel is beyond compare…every footstep there is to be cherished. It is a forward progression that is momentous, beautiful and humbling.
I had forgotten how difficult life in a “foreign” land can be—and I have renewed compassion and heartache for those whose hearts seek to dwell in Israel, but for whatever reason, cannot. I remember the words of the Israeli national anthem, HaTikvah (The Hope), with weeping when I reflect on my desire “to be a free people, in our land, the land of Zion.” Then I recall the saplings that my children and I have planted in our soil with our own hands in past years. This memory, and the faith in their continued growth, refreshes me and connects me with the Land that I love. For although we cannot be there now, we look with great expectation toward the fast approaching day when Abba will be faithful to physically return us to Eretz Yisrael.
Those young trees, rooted in the soil of Israel, are a personal reminder to our family of that faithfulness, and they can now become an international testimony of the righteous and true acts of G-d on the earth today. For, even as we speak, the Lord is being faithful to His promises and is planting many in His Land as well as in His Scriptures. Each one is a precious and living witness of the literal fulfillment of the truth of G-d’s Word. As you continue to send your roots deeply into His life–giving soil, the Torah, let us look together with great joy and anticipation of the coming day, when He will indeed physically plant all of His beloved children in the physical land of our inheritance—the Land of Israel. In accordance with Deuteronomy 8:8, the Tu B’Shevat Seder is associated with the eating of that which is grown in the Land of Israel: “…a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and [date] honey.”
The Seder Table
There is no “set” order for the Tu B’Shevat seder. So, be creative and design a seder to fit your own desires and interpretation. Traditionally, the table is filled with a variety of each of the above listed foods and whatever other fruits, nuts, dried fruits and seeds that are available from those which can be cultivated and grown in the Land of Israel. Try to get as many as possible! It is also customary to serve a fruit dessert such as cake, pie or cookies that contain some of the fresh fruits of the Land.
The Cups of Wine
The table is also set with red and white wine, or grape juice if you prefer. We drink from the wine cup four times: the first glass is all white wine, the second and third are combinations of the two mixed, and the last is mostly red wine, containing just a few drops of the white wine. The glasses remind us of, and visually symbolize, the transition from winter (white) to spring, the time of harvest and completed growth. But remember that even in the red glass, there are a few drops of white wine. Why? Because there are always “creations” in seed form in our lives and in the earth under our feet. It is good to remember that we will never quite “arrive,” in the most positive sense of the word.
Reading of the Psalms of Ascent, the reciting of passages in the Tanach that speak of the particular foods present, and the sharing of stories, poems and songs that have significant meaning to the environment, can be interspersed between the drinking of the four cups and the sampling of the specific foods. This is where you can be creative!
Following are the traditional blessings prayed during the seder: In response to the acknowledgment of the Hand of the Lord in everything that we do, we first bless Him by saying:
We praise you, Adonai our G-d, Creator of the Universe, who continually does the work of creation.
Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam, osseh ma’aseh v’reisheet.
We praise you, Adonai our G-d, Creator of the Universe, whose world is filled with beauty.
Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam she kacha lo b’olamo.
We praise you, Adonai our G-d, Creator of the Universe, that your world lacks nothing needful. You have fashioned goodly creatures and lovely trees that enchant the heart.
Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam shelo chisar b’olam davar, u’bara bo b’riot tovot ve’ilanot tovim, l’hanot bahem b’nei adam.
May you and your family be blessed with the abundance of Abba’s storehouse and may you have a fruitful year in His service.
Tree Planting in Israel
The “greening” of Israel with trees, flowers and grass is indeed a modern miracle. Almost every tree of the millions now standing in this once desolate land, has been lovingly planted by hand over the past 100 years since the arrival of the first olim (immigrants). There were large forest fires in the Latrun–Jerusalem Forest area again this year (November 1999). Arson was a distinct possibility, although difficult to prove. If you would like to perform the mitzvah of planting a tree in Israel this Tu B’Shevat, we would like to refer you to the website of the Jewish Agency for Israel, www.jnftrees.com.
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